COVID-19: The politics of the pandemic
By Neil Faulkner
March 18, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Mutiny — Anyone who trusts the Tories to respond to the coronavirus crisis in a rational and socially responsible way is a fool. Their response will reflect the class interests they represent.
Moreover, the present regime – a regime of the Hard Right, not the Centre Right – will use the opportunity to test-run the more authoritarian forms of state control they favour.
This may prove very necessary for them. There is every possibility that the pandemic will trigger a worldwide economic collapse and a massive intensification of the social tensions created by 40 years of neoliberalism and 10 years of austerity. Expect forms of police power trialled in the context of the pandemic then to be deployed again and again as the global crisis deepens in other ways.
For it will deepen. The coronavirus crisis provides a lens through which to observe the deep pathology of neoliberal capitalism – the grotesque profiteering of the international capitalist class, the shocking negligence of political elites and state agencies, and the way in which unregulated processes of capital accumulation trample human need and shred planetary eco-systems.
I want to comment on four aspects of the current crisis and explore what it tells us about the system we live under.
Coronavirus – or an equivalent pandemic – is no surprise. Everyone in the know has been predicting some such disaster for a quarter of a century.
We have experienced a succession of preliminary shocks: the Sars coronavirus killed 774 in 2002; H1N1 swine flu killed 284,500 in 2009; Mers coronavirus killed 700 in 2012-16; Ebola killed 11,325 in 2014-16. Smaller numbers have been killed by numerous other outbreaks of new infectious diseases.
In February 2004, at a time when the Bush administration was obsessing about a non-existent bioterrorism threat, radical US presidential candidate Ralph Nader put it thus:
The chain of infections from domesticated Chinese ducks to pigs to humans can explode into a world war of mutant viruses taking millions of casualties before vaccines can be developed and deployed.
Viruses are tiny packets of genes and proteins that seek to infect living cells. Because they exist in their billions and have very short life-cycles, they mutate rapidly and opportunistically to take advantage of new hosts.
Three factors – agribusiness, urbanisation, and globalisation – have combined to turn this natural process into what Mike Davis calls ‘the monster at our door’. The world has, in effect, become a gigantic Petri-dish for the cultivation and dissemination of new strains of deadly disease.
Fast rising demand for meat has driven a ‘livestock revolution’, with global meat production increasing from about 150 million tonnes in 1990 to more than twice that today. The response of agribusiness has included the commodification of wild species and a wholesale shift to intensive factory production.
Rising numbers of diverse animals in close proximity means increasing chances of virus mutation and species jumping. Needless to say, the agribusiness complexes generate vast amounts of waste, much of which is simply dumped, and sometimes turns out to be contaminated.
Alongside are the ever-growing slum cities of neoliberal industrialisation in the Global South, where highly concentrated populations are forced to live in squalor, with only the most rudimentary levels of public-health infrastructure. Here are the virus pressure-cookers for replicating disease once a mutant strain has made the leap from animal to human.
Then there are the globalised supply-chains and increased movements of people, with sea-freight trebled and air travel up eight-fold in the last four decades, giving us a mechanism for turning a localised outbreak into a global pandemic in double-quick time.
Like the social devastation and ecological destruction wrought by competitive capital accumulation, the production and distribution of disease is, for the system, just another ‘externality’. It does not register on corporate capital’s balance sheets. It is therefore irrelevant to the accumulation process.
The control of the global economy by competing mega-corporations and the division of the world into 200 rival nation-states mean that when there is an outbreak, cover-up is the immediate default option. This is not an occasional problem. It happens every single time.
The Chinese Stalinist dictatorship is, of course, hard-wired for cover-up. Whistleblowers are denounced, arrested, incarcerated. Local officials kowtow to higher officials. Everyone has instructions handed down from above. To admit problems is to admit failure. Careers depend upon cover-up.
But the pattern is similar elsewhere. State authorities and corporate executives cover up disease to protect profits. No-one wants to admit that they are responsible for the release of a new deadly pathogen.
State/corporate conspiracies of silence and obstruction mean that new viruses get a grip before any effective action is taken.
Once released upon the world, they impact upon societies eviscerated by neoliberalism – by the privatisation and rundown of public services, above all of public-health provision.
Take what the Tories have done to the NHS in the last ten years. There are currently 4,000 critical-care beds in the NHS, 90% of them occupied. In Germany, there are four times as many. One current estimate is that the coronavirus pandemic will require seven times as many.
Everything else is similarly run down and in short supply. Overall, 17,000 NHS beds have been axed since 2010. The current shortage of doctors and nurses runs at 100,000. Needless to say, there is a desperate shortage of ventilators – so we have the pathetic spectacle of do-nothing Hancock, the Tory health minister, appealing to private businesses to switch production to make good the shortage.
They knew the risks. They knew the system was breeding new viruses. They knew that a legion of specialists had been predicting a pandemic for decades. But still they went ahead with their programme of austerity under-funding and corporate takeover of the NHS.
The situation, of course, is far worse in the Global South, where public-health provision has been devastated by 40 years of neoliberalism, often in the context of ludicrously misnamed ‘structural adjustment’ programmes – effectively, screwing the poor of the Global South to pay the bankers of the Global North.
Big Pharma – the pharmaceutical mega-corporations that span the world economy – are central to this global health crisis. They block the production of cheap medicines. They refuse to invest in preventative vaccine research in favour of more lucrative ‘treatments’. They refuse to share knowledge with international and state agencies. They refuse to cooperate in the pooling of research and development. Patents and profits are paramount, not public health.
Mike Davis explains Big Pharma’s priorities:
Products that actually cure or prevent disease, like vaccines and antibiotics, are less profitable, so infectious disease has largely become an orphan market. As industry analysts point out, worldwide sales for all vaccines produce less revenue than Pfizer’s income from a single anti-cholesterol medication.
The giants prefer to invest in marketing rather than research, in rebranded old products rather than new ones, and in treatment rather than prevention; in fact, they currently spend 27% of their revenue on marketing and only 11% on research.
We inhabit a neoliberal dystopia with unprecedented levels of social atomisation. Civil society and networks of community support and social solidarity have been eroded by rampaging corporate power. Everything for profit, nothing for the general good, is the mantra of the system.
What, then, are the implications when the Tories tell people they should self-isolate if they feel sick? What are the implications for the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and workers on zero-hours contracts? Where are the networks of support? Who will provide a basic income? Where is the massive expansion in health and social spending made necessary by the coronavirus crisis?
The Tories’ priorities are: social control, the defence of private property and profit, and shifting the blame onto someone else. If that were not the case – if the British government’s priority was the well-being of working people – here are some of the things that would be done now:
1) Immediate shutdown of all non-essential businesses and functions. Shift to home working wherever possible.
2) Guaranteed full pay for all workers off work due to the pandemic. Full benefits to be paid to all claimants. Special grants to be made available for others in need.
3) Immediate takeover of all private health facilities in order to add capacity to the NHS as the crisis worsens.
4) Introduction of rent and price controls to prevent profiteering during the crisis.
5) Implementation of a mass testing and tracing programme. Recruitment and training of health, social-care, and child-care auxiliaries in anticipation of a rapidly escalating crisis.
6) International initiative to: a) co-ordinate a worldwide vaccine development programme (by taking over all private R&D facilities and pooling the global research effort); and b) co-ordinate a worldwide international aid programme to bolster the public-health capacity of the Global South.
But these and other popular measures would fly in the face of 40 years of neoliberal ideology: they would imply that when society is in crisis, we need collective, community-based solutions; we need working people organising to look after each other.
The most shocking aspect of Tory behaviour has been the dabbling with Social Darwinist eugenics. Johnson and Cummings have been peddling rubbish about ‘herd immunity’.
I assume this is what lay behind Johnson’s bizarre comment on 12 March that the British public should prepare to ‘lose loved ones before their time’. I can almost imagine the prior conversation with Cummings about a cull of the ‘surplus population’ – the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the poor.
The theory is that if two-thirds of the population have had the disease and developed immunity, the effect is to slow transmission rates. Given what we know – that the disease kills 1% or 2% of those it infects – the implication is that we allow several hundred thousand people to die in order to achieve a spurious ‘herd immunity’.
Because spurious it is. Having the disease may not confer immunity, especially given that it is mutating all the time (the American variant of coronavirus, for example, is slightly different from the original Chinese variant). And even if it proved the case that people cannot get the disease twice, what sort of ‘herd immunity’ is it that leaves one third of the population still at risk from a disease for which no vaccine as yet exists?
The present virus is only one aspect of the crisis now upon us. The existing virus may persist and evolve. New strains will emerge. Fresh pandemics can be expected. Global medical emergency – actual or imminent – is the new normal.
But there is more. The world economy is set to collapse. It is not simply the swathe of industries – airlines, railways, tourism, hospitality, and others – immediately threatened with bankruptcy. Nor even the fact that major corporate collapses in one sector are likely to trigger collapses in others. It is that the entire world economy floats on a mountain of debt.
This is what caused the crash in 2008. At that moment, total world debt stood at an estimated $173 trillion, or 280% of global GDP. Today, the estimate is $250 trillion, or 320% of global GDP.
In other words, the value of all outstanding debts – state, corporate, household – amount to more than three times the value of the entire annual output of the world economy. Here is another gigantic financial bubble set to burst.
The roots of this pathological financialisation go back to the 1970s. As the world economy slowed down at the end of the great post-war boom, it experienced a slow-motion crisis of ‘overaccumulation’.
This means that demand was too low to absorb all the surplus capital swilling around inside the system. So instead of flowing into productive investment, capital flowed into financial speculation (essentially, trading in debt of one form or another).
The growth of the permanent debt economy was also a way of raising demand: states, corporations, and households could maintain expenditure by borrowing to spend. As neoliberalism pushed down wages and siphoned wealth upwards, workers went into the debt to buy houses, cars, and consumer durables.
Last time they crashed the world economy – having turned the international banking system into a network of casinos for the super-rich – they paid no price. On the contrary, after 2008, they imposed a decade of austerity on working people and public services, while the corporate rich got even richer.
Twelve years on, they are set to crash it again, and this time in the context of a global pandemic, the breakdown of the planet’s eco-systems, and the gradual disintegration of the international order in a welter of wars and mass displacements.
The political consequences of the intensified world crisis now upon us may be determined by the forces of the Far Right. That would, of course, be catastrophic.
On the other hand, we could use the crisis to rebuild civil society and a culture of caring and sharing. We could be organising together to help each other, to support the vulnerable, to ensure that no-one is left isolated, deprived, and fearful. We could be mobilising against the Tories and the corporations to ensure that basic human needs take priority over private profit.
Were we to do this, we might begin to create a mass popular movement capable of challenging wealth and power. For there is an alternative to the Far Right prescription of authoritarianism, nationalism, and border police.
The alternative is the revolutionary transformation of the world: the take-over of the corporations, the dissolution of the nation-states, and the creation of a system of mass popular power to move us rapidly towards a new economic and social order based on equality, public welfare, and ecological sustainability.
Neil Faulkner is the author of A Radical History of the Worldand, with Samir Dathi, Phil Hearse, and Seema Syeda, Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.